• Lisa

Big Island, Hawaii: Master Guide

Updated: Jun 30

Heading to the Big Island of Hawaii soon? Check out this extensive guide for everything you need to know before you go!

The Big Island of Hawaii is far less touristy than Maui and Oahu but offers the same amount of island charm and history! There is so much to explore and see… which is why I've been going to the Big Island every year for 20 years!! Check out my favorite Big Island spots, tips and tricks, fun facts, and more!!

Big Island Fun Facts!

  • “Hawaii” is not only the name of the state, but also the name of the largest island. It has since been nicknamed “The Big Island”. This island is larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined!

  • The Big Island has 11 of the 13 different climate zones around the world. From rainforest to tropical to mountain terrain, you can see it all on this island! (It makes packing a little tough, but so worth it)!

  • The Big Island is home to the active volcano, Kilauea!

  • Mauna Kea is the largest mountain of the state – if it was measured from the ocean floor, it would be 4,000 feet taller than Mt Everest!

  • The southern tip of the island, Ka’lae, is the southernmost point in the USA! Its latitude matches that of Cuba and Belize.

  • The IronMan Triathlon is held annually in Kona!

Big Island - Know Before You Go:

  • Rent. A. Car. Unless you plan on booking a resort and never leaving the property, you’ll need a rental car to get around the island. There’s a lot of ground to cover on the Big Island if you want to explore and see everything Hawaii has to offer. (Keep in mind, gas is pricey on the island so budget accordingly).

  • Rent beach chairs. Lugging beach chairs across the Pacific Ocean isn’t easy (or cheap) so it’s best to rent beach chairs upon your arrival. There are plenty of options to rent beach chairs so check pricing before stopping at the first one you see. It’s also typically cheapest to rent it for the entire week (rather than day by day).

  • Check the weather for the exact city you’re going to be in… Hilo and Kona have completely different weather… furthermore, Waikaloa and Waimea (25 miles apart) have completely different weather!

  • Costco Members – you’re in luck! There is a Costco in Kona that has great food deals and even better gas prices.

  • FREE Things To Do - Check out my full guide for all the FREE Things to Do on The Big Island to help save money.

Towns of the Big Island:

1. Hilo: Hilo is the capital city of the Big Island and is known for being a lush rainforest beachside town that sits near the active volcano of Kilauea. This part of the island tends to rain frequently, so check the weather (and then check it again) before planning a day trip to Hilo. This town offers many lovely waterfalls, hikes, and beaches to explore. Check out more about my guide to Hilo here!

2. Kona: Kona is my favorite “city” on the big island. Almost always sunny, Kona is a great place to walk along the oceanfront or head into the town to shop. There’s a lot to do here in Kona, including The Kona Farmers Market and The Kona Brewing Company!

Related Posts: Kona, Hawaii - City Guide

3. Waikaloa: Resort central! This is where you will find most of the vacationers and tourists, and it’s easy to see why! Waikaloa is a large resort oasis filled with so many activities. It’s just a 10 minute drive to the Island’s best beach, Hapuna! There are free Hawaiian Dancing Performances and plenty of shops and places to eat. Check out my full guide on Waikaloa here and see why this is the best place on the island to stay!

4. Waimea: This ranch like town will have you feeling like you transported to the middle of Wyoming. It certainly feels out of place for an island, but still has so much charm! This is the closest town to Waikoloa (resort community) and is filled with locals!

What to Pack:

Shop my favorite Hawaii necessities on Amazon here!

- Bathing Suits & Cover Ups

-       Waterproof Phone Case

- Sunscreen – it’s expensive on the island

- Hats

-       Chapstick with SPF

- Rain jacket and umbrella

- Hiking shoes (especially ones you don’t mind getting muddy)

-       Your favorite Hawaiian Shirt

Related Post: Ultimate Hawaii Packing List

Where to Stay:

There are 5 amazing resorts on the Big Island that each feature pools, beach access, spas, golf courses and more. Read my pros and cons for each resort HERE.

  • Hilton Waikaloa Village

  • Westin Hapuna Beach Resort

  • Mauna Kea Resort

  • Waikaloa Marriott

  • Four Seasons Hualalai

Related Post: Top 5 Resorts on the Big Island

Big Island Beaches:

Check out my extensive review of the Top 10 Beaches on the Big Island. A highlight of the best options are posted below, too:

  • Hapuna Beach – voted one the best beaches in the country time and time again, and it’s easy to see why! Hapuna Beach is the vision of Hawai’i … white sand beach, palm trees, lava rocks on either side. The entrance fee is $5/car per day and well worth it. There are lifeguards and restroom facilities available. You’ll need to provide your own chairs and beach equipment. If you don’t want to bring an umbrella, you can sit near the lava rocks for some shade. This beach sees all types of waves – from calm lake-like water to 20 foot waves! It’s only 10 minutes away from Waikoloa (resort community) and is a must see when on The Big Island.

  • Spencer’s Beach – This beach is fairly small and also a campsite. It is known for great whale watching. They have a wide variety of facilities (restrooms, volleyball, picnic tables, etc). Locals will host outdoor parties here frequently. There is a lot of shade here and the waves are pretty minimal so it’s great for families with little ones.

  • "Private" Mauna Kea Beach – very limited parking. Get here first thing in the morning (before 9AM) for best chances. You’re technically sharing the beachfront with the Mauna Kea hotel guests, but since no beaches in Hawaii are “private” they allow a handful of nonguests each day. You’ll have to stop at a guardhouse who will let you know if they’re at capacity or not (which is why I suggest going early). Once you get in, you’ll find parking and head down to the beach. There are little to no waves here so the water is very calm and perfect for little ones. I like to bring floats out here to relax.

  • Anaeho'omalu Beach – This beach is often referred to as “A-Bay”. It is very picturesque and tranquil… perfect for relaxing in the sun, walks along the bay, or admiring the sunset at night. The crescent shaped bay has little to no waves and the water is typically very calm which makes it easier to snorkel. The public access part of this bay features restroom facilities and some shaded area new a cluster of palm trees. You can rent paddle boards or boat excursions from this beach as well!!

  • Richardson Beach – This Hilo beach is great for so many reasons… the surf is big (experienced surfers recommended), there are dozens of turtles, and you can explore the lava rocks as the waves crash into them! While there isn’t much beachfront to relax and sunbathe, this beach offers everything else. The last time I was here, I saw over 15 turtles in a lagoon nearby.

Big Island Waterfalls:

  • Rainbow Falls (Hilo) – easily accessible. No entrance fee. This iconic waterfall is located within the town of Hilo and is extremely accessible. The Wailuku river cascades over the lava cave creating the Rainbow Falls. According to Hawaiian legends, the lava cave is home to the Hawaiian goddess of the moon, Hina. You can almost always spot a rainbow glistening above the falls. If you’d like to walk to the top, there is a stair pathway that takes less than 5 minutes to hike. Because Rainbow Falls is so easily accessible, it is a hot spot for tour busses and visitors. I recommend getting there early to try and avoid as much traffic as possible.

  • Akaka Falls (Hilo) – easily accessible. This 400ft tall waterfall, located just North of the town of Hilo, is a must see. Park at the designated parking lot and pay the entrance fee ($5/car or $1/person). Then, begin on the picturesque walk through the rainforest to the falls. It’s just under half a mile round trip and is paved the entire way. There are plenty of lush plant life to admire along the trail so take your time and enjoy!

Big Island Hikes:

  • Pololu Valley – Pololu Valley is the most northern part of the Big Island and offers stunning views of green cliffs and ocean waves. Some people drive to the end of the road just to snap a picture and turn around, but the real treasure is hiking down to the bottom. Come prepared with good walking shoes as this pathway is very slippery when wet (which is most of the time, considering this part of the island sees a lot of rain). The hike down the valley is about 0.6 miles but incredibly steep. It takes about 30-45 minutes to go down and about 20-30 minutes to come up.

  • Green Sand Beach (Papakolea) - This is one of two Green Sand Beaches in the United States and is well worth the view after the hike! To get here, drive south of Kona and take the road marked “South Point” (Highway 11 – Mile Marker 69/70). Continue down the road until it reaches a dead end and parking lot. Here you may see locals offering 4-wheel drives to the Green Sand Beach – this is ILLEGAL and not permitted. The 4WD ruins the landscape. Instead, opt to hike the 2.8 miles to the Green Sand Beach. The terrain is fairly easy to walk on (I was unprepared and hiked in flip flops and survived just fine). The path is hardly ever shaded so it can get hot – I recommend going early in the day to avoid as much heat as possible. It takes about an hour to get to the Green Sand Beach by foot. Then, you’ll walk down the steep cliff to the ocean shore. Some people swim here but keep in mind, there are no lifeguards or facilities. Be sure to pack a lot of water and save energy for the 2.8 mile back to the car.

  • Kilauea’ Iki Trail (Crater Trail in Hawai’i Volcano National Park) – This hike will take you right on top of an active volcano crater! Located inside of the Hawai’i Volcano National Park, this hike will require you to purchase entrance to the park. The cost is here. You can spend all day exploring so it’s definitely worth it! Check the weather before you go, even though you’re on top of a volcano, it can definitely be chilly some days! Park across from Thurston Lava tube and prepare for the 2-3 hour hike that is 4 miles long! The trail is a loop so you can really start in either direction, but I prefer going right first as the hike is a bit easier. Going right, you’ll begin in the rain forest before descending into the crater (steep but short). Once you reach the crater floor, you will feel like you’ve stepped onto Mars! It’s a stark contract from the lush forest and quite spectacular. Walk across the crater and look out for the steam coming up from the cracks where hot lava sits below. This part of the hike can be particularly hot as there is no shade to cover you! Once you’ve reached the other side of the crater, you’ll reenter a rainforest and hike your way back to the parking lot. Be sure to checkout the Thurston Lava Tube before getting back in your car!

Where to Eat:

- Ted’s Donuts

Check out their authentic Hawiian donuts - it's like cakey bread with pudding inside!

- Pineapple Restaurant (Hilo)

This is a MUST every time I visit Hilo. Their food is so fresh and tasty - I usually get the fish and chips, but sometimes I'll get salmon on shrimp. They also have a wide variety of other choices on their menu. Plus, check out the drinks for special fun cocktails!

- Donna’s Cookies

Yum! Donna's Cookies is a local bakery that specalizes in cookies! Try her macadamia nut cookies for a special treat!

- Kona Brewing Company (Kona)

Even if you don't like beer, this is a must! They make their pizzas with the yeast from the beer and it is so tasty!

- Lava Lava Beach Club (Waikaloa)

This is the picture perfect restaurant. It is exactly what you think of when you think Hawaiian Vacation. Sit outside on the sand, or inside at a table, enjoy the sound of the waves, and eat to your hearts content.

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